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Leisure and Pleasure

Leisure and Pleasure

For most Russians, the ideal way of spending the day is to collect as many people and as much food and drink as possible and spend the day enjoying them.

Having a patch of ground to grow vegetables is increasingly popular and fashionable, as food in the markets becomes more expensive. Sometimes these small patches sprout mini-dachas, little wooden sheds just big enough to keep tools and seeds in, and even for the occasional one-person overnight stop. One step up from this is the dacha proper. Every Friday evening, families set off from the centre of Russian cities in small, ancient and overloaded cars bursting with Mum, Dad, little Petya, cousin Varya and her husband Kyrill, the dog, and enough food and drink for the next two days.

The Russians do not have flower gardens, they are content to be surrounded by birches and fir trees. In the autumn, many go out into the woods with a basket and a stick, mushroom-hunting. In winter, a masochistically energetic pleasure is to break the ice and swim in freezing cold water: this is called being a "walrus".

Sex

For over 70 years, Russians pretended in public that sex did not exist. But despite Khrushchev's witty claim that there were no professional prostitutes in Russia, only "talented amateurs", there has always been a thriving sex industry.

Russian prostitutes exercise a bewildering and (to the lucky customer) charming right to charge less to men they find personally attractive. A good-looking young American businessman was approached in an expensive hotel by a Japanese businessman who wanted to share his pain and anger at being charged $300 a go with the establishment's call girls, whereas to his certain knowledge the same girls only charged Americans $100.

The same businessman was astonished at the sexual licence displayed by the wives and girlfriends of his Russian colleagues. They were constantly coming up to him and inviting him to bed, adding reassuringly: "My husband (or boyfriend) says he doesn't mind".

But away from the free-wheeling circles of the new businessmen and the old "mafia", a more puritanical note is struck. It is said that couples used to be advised by their priest to cover the faces of the family ikons in the bedchamber before making love.

The course of young love in Russia cannot run smooth because of the dreadful scarcity of places to perform. Secluded corners of stairwells, especially beside radiators, have been favoured, as have office desks after business hours.

Since glasnost was announced, newspapers and magazines have been increasingly obsessed with all aspects of sex, and Russian men have been taken aback by recent articles that claim they show less than total command of technique. The debate has even penetrated to the pages of the professional booksellers' journal, Knizhnoye Obozrenie, which published a 60-point sex questionnaire.

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